Termites in my Bra…
‘I’ve done fieldwork before, I know exactly what to expect’. As soon as I said the words out loud I knew they’d come back to haunt me. As the post-doc on Dr Seirian Sumners three-year NERC project studying the molecular basis of social evolution in wasps, I was to spend the first few months of my new role on fieldwork in Trinidad.
My first surprise came when I arrived in Trinidad. Trinidad is a Caribbean island, but unlike the other 27 island nations, it’s driven by industry, not by tourism. There’s everything you’d expect from a tropical island but it’s somewhat rough around the edges! There are long sandy beaches with palm trees swaying in the breeze, but getting to them is a daredevil adventure across pot-holed mountain roads. There’s plenty of rum in the evenings, well more specifically Puncheon, which is like rum but 75% alcohol and pretty much illegal everywhere else! The benefit to this is its potential as a preservative for samples if ethanol isn’t available! The locals are welcoming and friendly, but you have to first ignore the machete people carry for hacking through unruly jungle!
My second surprise was the wasps. This was my first experience of working with wasps in the field, and I didn’t think I’d get quite so attached to them. However, I can honestly say that wasps can be pretty cute (seriously!) Each of my nests had character, and their behaviour varied depending on their stage in the nest cycle, with some far more aggressive than others (these I was less attached to). So involved was I in their well-being that one afternoon I found myself brandishing a (very long) stick and facing my arachnophobia in an attempt to deter a Trinidadian Chevron Tarantula the size of a small dog from attacking one of my nests.
Now fieldwork often requires you to think on your feet to rise to challenges in unexpected ways. Some of these are even more surreal than others. At no point did I envisage myself and Seirian trawling the malls of Trinidad for the most suitable material to re-cover wasp nests after we had removed the protective envelope. Debating which denier of ladies stocking was closest to the pulp produced by masticating wasps was not a conversation I ever foresaw myself having!
Weeks were spent in the field, observing wasp nests to identify which of the 100+ females on the nest (which show no external morphological differences) was our queen. Now unless you happen to catch her in the act of egg-laying, this is no easy task. Marking individual wasps to aid identification was abandoned on week 2. You try removing every wasp (of >500), painting them with four colours then placing them carefully back on the nest and hoping they hadn’t noticed! Turns out they didn’t like it too much and had a habitat of dying on us. Instead, cohorts of age-matched wasps were marked on the nest on a weekly basis using a rather crude, but very effective ‘abstract expressionism’ method.
Following our observations, then removals of cohorts, collections began in earnest. This involved sitting atop a ladder, face to face with the nest, sterile gloves on, forceps grasped in anticipation waiting for foraging wasps to return then removing their heads into RNA buffer. It was important this was done on specific days, to ensure my wasps were of the same age. All was going smoothly until my third collection. It had been raining all morning, and not that little drizzle we call rain in the UK. This was torrential, I-wish-I-hadn’t-just-left-my-only-pair-of-fieldwork-shoes-outside rain. Luckily it cleared by lunchtime so I was able to get on with collections.
Now, an interesting fact about another social insect, which I was unaware of until this point; Following torrential rains, winged reproductive termites will swarm to look for a new nest site. So I’m up my ladder, gloves on and sterilised, happily watching for foragers. Within 10 minutes I am head to toe in swarming termites. The large wings of termites are very fragile and will drop off as soon as the termite comes into contact with a surface. Especially if that surface is a bit sweaty and clammy. This leaves the termite unencumbered to crawl where it pleases. Now, it’s hot, and very, very humid. I can’t remove my gloves as this would mean getting back down the ladder to repeat the whole sterilisation process again. So I just sit there. My skin is crawling with termites, which are quickly shedding their wings all over me (which, by the way, are particularly adherent to bare skin). After about twenty minutes I’m not sure which is termite, beads of sweat or discarded wings, but I can definitely feel more than a few termites in my bra!
Oh, the glamour of being a field biologist.
Would I do it again? Absolutely!